SpaceX has successfully launched NASA’s Crew-2 mission, with four astronauts heading to the International Space Station aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Falcon 9 rocket took off from the 39A Launch Complex at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning at 5:49 am EDT, again demonstrating the potential of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Spiritual successor to the Space Shuttle program, the Commercial Crew is all about NASA exploring private space flight companies to maximize efficiency and minimize the costs of ongoing missions to the ISS and beyond. Instead of financing and building its own hardware, NASA has outsourced the process to companies like SpaceX, which focus on things like reusable rockets and other components.
This is the second flight of six manned missions that NASA and SpaceX have agreed to, the first having taken a cohort of four astronauts to the ISS in November 2020. This time, the Crew Dragon Endeavor has also defined some “firsts” for space agency. It is the first Commercial Crew mission to include two international partners, for example, Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA in Japan and Thomas Pesquet from ESA in Europe joining NASA’s own Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur.
It will also be the first in this new generation of missions to include a commercial crew transfer on the ISS, although the overlap is relatively brief. Crew-1 and Crew-2 will be on board the space station together for about five days, says NASA, before the first group flies back to Earth in their Crew Dragon Resilience. During this period of overlap, the two spacecraft will both be anchored on the ISS.
It is important to note that it is also the first time that a Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 have been reused in a crew mission. Falcon 9 was used for the Crew-1 mission, while the Dragon Dragon Endeavor was used for the Demo-2. This ability to reuse is the key to SpaceX’s pitch, with the company showing that it is increasingly able to retrieve various parts used in the program and refurbish them for future releases.
“It has been an incredible year for NASA and our Commercial Crew Program, with three manned launches for the space station since last May,” said NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk today in a statement.
About 100 minutes after launch, Crew Dragon reached orbit at 7:30 am EDT, NASA confirmed. He broke away from the second stage rocket and his nose cone opened. Meanwhile, the Falcon 9 Stage 1 successfully landed on the SpaceX drone ship it had hoped for, in the Atlantic Ocean. It will be reused in future missions.
Endeavor is scheduled to dock at the International Space Station at about 5:10 am EDT on Saturday, April 24. The journey time will be almost a full day, although the docking process itself is designed to work completely autonomously. SpaceX and NASA previously demonstrated that Crew Dragon capsules can move autonomously between the ISS docking ports, although astronauts are on board when that happens, in case the new docking is not possible for some unexpected reason.
Crew-2 will be on board the ISS for six months, returning no earlier than October 31, 2021. Among their tasks will be experiments designed to better prepare for the Artemis mission in 2024, says NASA, upon returning astronauts to the Moon and eventually builds a sustainable presence there.